Perhaps one of the biggest areas of question for the Arizona football squad heading into the 2012 season is at the safety position. The position boasts several talented contributors that return from the previous regime, but depth is lacking and there are health concerns surrounding one of its most important players.
Adam Hall will most likely be granted a medical redshirt for the 2011 season after missing nearly the entire campaign due to an ACL injury he suffered last offseason. Hall's absence was devastating to a defense that struggled to do anything successful as a collective unit on a consistent basis.
The year prior, Hall was beginning to show signs of developing into a premier safety in the conference. In 2010, Hall completed the season with 54 tackles, two interceptions, three pass break-ups and three-and-a-half tackles for loss. Hall really came on strong at the end of the season, coming up with 26 tackles and both interceptions in his final four games.
While many will have concern in Hall and how he performs in his return from injury – and rightfully so – he, along with junior linebacker Jake Fischer, are considered the heart and soul of the defense. Hall has looked like he is close to 100 percent in early offseason practice sessions, so it should be interesting to watch his progression over the next five months.
Marquis Flowers played well in spurts for the Wildcats in 2011 and should be counted on to improve significantly in 2012. Flowers' level of play jumped dramatically from his freshman season and while he struggled in pass coverage at times, he was still one of the better players on defense last season.
Flowers finished 2011 with 68 tackles – three for loss – with one interception, one sack, a fumble recovery and three pass break-ups. If he adapts quickly to Jeff Casteel's defense he should see those numbers increase. Flowers has a lot of natural ability and if the new staff can get the most out of him, he could develop into a big time player as early as this upcoming campaign.
One of the bigger surprises this past season was the play of true freshman Tra'Mayne Bondurant. While he played more of linebacker / nickel role last season, Bondurant has the natural ability to play several different positions on the defensive side of the ball. He could see plenty of time at safety in the new system and he would make a huge impact in the defensive backfield if that's the responsibility he ends up assuming.
Playing closer to the line, Bondurant finished the 2011 season with 45 tackles – three-and-a-half for loss – one sack, one interception, one forced fumble and he broke up six passes. Going into his sophomore season, big things are expected of Bondurant in a system that clearly caters to his strengths.
After failing to crack the rotation for about three years, Mark Watley finally stepped into the role of valuable contributor in 2011. In his junior year, Watley collected 26 tackles – one for loss – one interception and three pass break-ups. Now in his senior season under a completely new staff, Watley has one last chance to make a big impact at the college level. Given the emphasis on the need for defensive backs, Watley should see ample playing time in 2012.
The 2012 recruiting class brought in a pair of players at the safety position in San Antonio (Tex.) Houston product Leo Thomas and Culver City (Calif.) Senior high school prospect Yamen Sanders. If either (or both) can show they are ready enough to play early at the Pac-12 level, they could see the field given the issues with depth at the position. Ideally, both will redshirt to preserve a year of eligibility, but a situation may arise where that becomes impossible. Only time will tell.
Rodriguez and his staff tend to give walk-ons a fair shot, so there is a possibility that a player like Stephen Ascher or Jared Tevis – assuming he is on the roster given his current legal situation – can crack the rotation.
The safety position possesses plenty of talent and potential. The starters and backups are quality players who will all likely play an important roll in UA's defense in 2012. Beyond that, the position is a bit up in the air.
The Wildcats will need to stay as healthy as possible in order to avoid the potential complications of throwing young players to the fire too early. If the experienced safeties can stay on the field and improve on the level of play they showed the past two seasons, the position could be a much stronger unit than it has been in recent years.
State of the Roster: Safety
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